ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022) – Netflix German Original Relentless in Its Depiction of Brutalities of War

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I finally caught up with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022), a Netflix original which hails from Germany and is currently nominated for Best Picture.

It’s a worthy nomination. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is an excellent movie.

Released in October 2022, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, a novelist who based the book on his experiences as a German soldier in World War I. This is the third time Remarque’s novel has been filmed, the previous two were in 1930 and in 1979. This 2022 version is an all-German production, and you can watch it on Netflix in its original German language with English subtitles.

Directed by Edward Berger, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT tells a story of the horrors of war that transcends generations. While the horrors shown here are specific to World War I, the case can be made that the horrors of war remain consistent regardless of time or place.

Here the plot follows young German soldier Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) who is so excited to enlist and join the war effort that his wide-eyed expressions resemble a child opening gifts on Christmas morning. It doesn’t take long for Paul and his friends to realize that fighting in the trenches is anything but enjoyable and is an experience that has his friends shrieking that they want to go home once the battles start.

Director Edward Berger holds nothing back in the battle sequences. The ever-present mud is thick and relentless. When they’re not fighting, the soldiers are using their hands and helmets to dish out the cold water from the trenches. And when they are fighting, they are shot at, stabbed, hacked, and more. We see soldiers burned alive with flame throwers, trampled upon by tanks, and blown up by grenades. The action here is bloody, brutal, and relentless, and these sequences come in waves, at the film’s beginning, in the middle, and at the end.

Between battles, Paul bonds with some of his fellow soldiers, including Stan Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). We’re privy to conversations where they discuss their lives back home, and their fears that they will never return, which pretty much turns out to be true. The film also depicts the negotiations between German diplomats and the French for a ceasefire, as the Germans realize they are losing the war. They quickly learn that the French want total and unconditional surrender, and when the Germans protest to the conditions, claiming that they are too harsh, and the people will not like this peace, the French pretty much respond with a big fat “too bad.” And of course, it’s this approach that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, as he was able to take advantage of the despondent German population to build his nationalistic Nazi regime.

The German military also bristled at this peace, believing the diplomats were giving everything away, and they ordered soldiers to fight right up until the 11:00 armistice.

Director Edward Berger also co-wrote the screenplay with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell. The story told here describes in vivid detail the absolute horrors of trench warfare in World War I, and what war does to soldiers. Its message is also timeless, as here in 2023 the world continues to be at war in some place or other.

Not all of the movie works. It’s rather long, clocking in at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and when the film isn’t showing in-your-face scenes of warfare, it’s less compelling.

The film will no doubt draw comparisons to another recent superior movie about World War I, 1917 (2019), by writer/director Sam Mendes. The two films are comparable, and in terms of quality and impact, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT certainly holds its own against 1917.

Overall, ALL QUIET ON WESTERN FRONT is a superb movie, one that delivers its message that war is hell, and that soldiers pay a high price for decisions made by generals and leaders not on the battlefield.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

—Ratings System—

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

If you enjoy my reviews and would like to read my latest horror novel, then feel free to check out DEMON AT THE DOOR at the link below:

https://www.amazon.com/Demon-at-Door-Michael-Arruda/dp/1637898932

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) – Del Toro’s Latest—A Stop-motion Animation Extravaganza Combined with Impactful Script— Is One of His Best

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GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) works on so many different levels, it’s difficult to know where to start.

So, I guess I’ll start by saying this version of PINOCCHIO is definitely not just for kids, as the themes and story in this one are definitely aimed at adults, even though on the surface it remains a children’s story. That being said, even though it is rated PG, it is rather dark and in spots frightening, and so parents of younger children be forewarned. But for everyone else, enjoy!

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is now available on Netflix, which means you can watch this one from the comfort of your own home. It features exquisite stop-motion animation, and the word that comes to mind when describing it is clear. Everything in this movie looks so clear, clean, and precise. The feel of the animation hearkens back to the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials of the 1960s and 70s, vehicles like RUDOLPH THE RED- NOSED REINDEER (1964) and SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970), only it’s a gazillion times better, as if these Christmas specials were shot by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, or perhaps some other cinematic visionary, say like Guillermo del Toro. How about that?

The actors providing the voices all do first-rate jobs, which is no surprise when you have the likes of Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Ron Perlman, John Turturo, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Christoph Waltz in your cast! Even the songs are memorable. But most of all, and by far my favorite part of this movie, even with its amazing animation, is its script by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the book Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Not only is the story it tells compelling, but it covers anti-war and anti-fascist themes, father/son relationships, and really and most importantly has a lot to say on what death means, and how important it is to love those around you while you have them, because life is so short, and then it’s gone.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO opens in World War I Italy where a woodcarver named Geppetto (David Bradley) lives a quiet happy life with his son Carlo (Alfie Tempest), but this happy time is cut short when a bomb falls from the sky, and Carlo is killed in the explosion. In the years that follow, Geppetto grieves and can’t move past his grief, wasting away as he yearns for nothing else but the return of his son. It’s at this time that the narrator of the story appears, the Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a self-described author who moves into the tree which had grown by Carlo’s grave in order to write his life story, but it’s at this point that Geppetto reaches an all-time low, and in a fit of drunken rage, decides that he’s sick and tired of his prayers not being answered, and he vows to take matters into his own hands. No, he doesn’t have a PET SEMATARY moment and dig up his son’s grave, but he does chop down the tree by the grave and uses the wood to build a puppet in the likeness of his son, but of course it is lifeless, and Geppetto collapses into a drunken stupor.

But as the Cricket observes, the Spirits take pity on Geppetto and decide to magically give the puppet life, and in a scene right out of FRANKENSTEIN, Geppetto awakes and is horrified to see the puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) now alive and claiming to be his son. Pinocchio is jubilant to be alive and in one energetic outburst after another, runs about the house asking question upon question. Geppetto tries to control him and finally tells him to stay home while he goes to church, but Pinocchio wants to go to church and soon follows Geppetto there, even disobeying the Cricket who tries to teach him to listen to his father.

Inside the church, the churchgoers are horrified and cry out witchcraft at the sight of the talking puppet, and Geppetto whisks Pinocchio home. In a heated argument, Geppetto calls Pinocchio a burden, and heartbroken, the puppet runs away and joins the circus operated by the villainous Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile, Pinocchio has also attracted the attention of the Podesta (Ron Perlman), who sees great value in a wooden puppet who cannot die, and wants him to be part of the national army.

Eventually, Geppetto and the Cricket go off in search of Pinocchio, and in one of the more frightening sequences you’ll see in a PG animated movie, they are swallowed up by a massive sea creature, and they find themselves stuck inside the enormous belly of the beast. Left on his own, Pinocchio sees through the likes of Count Volpe and Podesta and learns that they are using him, and he decides that he must seek out his father and spend whatever time they have left together, setting the stage for an exciting rescue attempt.

On its surface, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is a highly entertaining and visually stunning animated adventure, and beneath the surface is a well-written theme-driven screenplay that knocks it out of the park with its anti-war sentiments and thoughts on life and death.

In one scene, Pinocchio is overjoyed and singing that he’s going off to war because it sounds life fun, and Geppetto tells him that war is not fun, that war is bad, that war took away Carlo from him. It’s a simple scene, and a simple piece of dialogue, but this one moment captures succinctly what this film is all about. War is not a good thing, and that’s an important message to be sure here in 2022, because wars are all around us. The United States alone has been involved in ongoing global conflicts since 2001. The world doesn’t know what it’s like not to be at war.

The film is just as clear with its anti-fascist and anti-nationalist messages, which are equally as important here in 2022 as these movements continue to gain strength around the world.

But the most telling and most resonating message of the movie is its take on death, how life is short, and how we need to enjoy life with those around us while we can. Geppetto grieves greatly over the loss of his son, and nearly loses his life in the years afterwards. At first, he can’t really open himself to accepting Pinocchio because his heart is still with Carlo, but he eventually listens to the advice of the Cricket who basically shouts at him to stop feeling sorry for himself and to accept Pinocchio for who he is. It’s a powerful moment in what the casual observer might dismiss as a children’s movie. This version of PINOCCHIO is much more than that.

And the way this one ends is such a sweet and on-target moment about how to deal with death, that it’s the perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

While this all sounds serious, the film still manages to be fun and upbeat. Most of the comic relief comes from the Cricket, voiced with empathy and gusto by Ewan McGregor. He gets a funny running gag throughout the movie, as every time he begins to sing a certain song about his own father, something dramatic happens and prevents his singing it. The film gets the humor right throughout.

Speaking of gusto, young Gregory Mann is absolutely amazing as Pinocchio. He has so much spirit and energy, and he makes this living, talking puppet completely convincing.

David Bradley is perfect as Geppetto, the father who grieves so much for his deceased son it nearly kills him, and as such it takes him a long time to accept Pinocchio. But he is there for the young puppet with words of wisdom and love that eventually make their mark on the wooden youth. Bradley is known to HARRY POTTER fans for playing Argus Filch in that series.

Christoph Waltz has a field day voicing the villainous Count Volpe, and it’s one of my favorite performances in the film. Ron Perlman is memorable as the Podesta, as is Finn Wolfhard as his increasingly sympathetic son, Candlewick.

Tilda Swinton does her thing as the magical Wood Sprite, who Pinocchio visits each time he “dies.” These sequences are otherworldly and magical, and take the movie to a whole different level.

You won’t hear Cate Blanchett’s voice because she voices the monkey Spazzatura, and so she only makes monkey sounds, but this character becomes very important in the story. Spazzatura spends most of the time as the slave to Count Volpe’s master, but as the monkey becomes closer to Pinocchio, things change.

And in a fun bit of casting, Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants himself, voices Mussolini, in a very funny sequence where the Italian dictator arrives to watch Pinocchio perform.

One odd thing about this version of Pinocchio is the near absence of women in the story. Other than the Wood Sprite, there really isn’t another woman character to be found.

Guillermo del Tor has always made visually stunning movies, and the visuals he creates have always been my favorite part of his films. I have actually liked his films less than a lot of other folks have, as I have found that the storytelling in his movies hasn’t been up to par with their visual aspects, and as such, I’ve only been lukewarm to films like NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017). But this new version of PINOCCHIO doesn’t have this problem. Its screenplay is actually a strength.

And so, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson, is now one of my favorite Guillermo del Toro movies.

It also features stop motion animation, which I always enjoy, and which has a long history going back to KING KONG (1933) and even before that, as Kong animator Willis O’Brien had animated movies before Kong. Years later O’Brien’s protege was Ray Harryhausen who would go on to become the undisputed king of stop motion movie animation, with films like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

After watching GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, there’s no doubt in my mind that Ray Harryhausen would have been proud.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

AMSTERDAM (2022) – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington Lead All-Star Cast in David O. Russell’s Lighthearted Murder Mystery Period Piece

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AMSTERDAM (2022), director/writer David O. Russell’s first film since JOY (2015), is loosely based on a true story, a political conspiracy in 1933 known as the Business Plot, where wealthy businessmen and bankers plotted a behind-the-scenes coup d’├ętat to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military general.

With its all-star cast, led by the triumvirate of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, combined with its artful cinematography capturing 1933 New York and its impactful and hopping screenplay by David O. Russell, AMSTERDAM largely entertains for all of its two hour and fourteen-minute running time.

The movie gets off to a lively start as we meet Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) in 1933 New York. Berendsen is a doctor and World War I veteran who treats his fellow veterans who returned from the Great War with unspeakable scars, injuries, and pain. So much pain. Berendsen is always looking for more powerful drugs to help his patients deal with the pain, and he himself lost an eye during the war, and his back is terribly scarred and twisted, so much so he has to constantly wear a back brace. Bale with his character’s glass eye and odd manner of speaking channels a lot of Peter Falk throughout his performance. When they are later trying to solve the mystery, it was easy to imagine Columbo on the case.

Burt and his fellow veteran and best friend from the war Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney, are hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to look into her father’s death, which she believes is the result of foul play. And when Liz is pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle and murdered right in front of their eyes, they realize something big is going on.

Burt, who narrates the movie, then says it’s time for some background information, and the film jumps back in time to 1918 where he and Harold are cared for in army hospital by a nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three become inseparable, and their friendship blossoms as they spend a magical period shut off from the rest of the world in Amsterdam. But they pledged to always be there for each other. And so eventually when the action returns to 1933 New York, Valerie re-enters their lives as they, in the process of investigating their former commanding officer’s death, uncover a vast conspiracy against the United States government.

All of this sounds serious, and some of it is, but the screenplay is anything but a straight drama. It’s quirky and humorous, generating enough clever laughs to keep this one lighthearted throughout.

The biggest story with AMSTERDAM is its cast, both its three main players and the supporting cast of actors. Anytime you have Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington sharing ample screen time in your movie, chances are things are going to be purdy darn good. And they are.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor, and his performance as broken Burt Berendsen drives the entire movie forward. With his quirky Peter Falk-style delivery, Bale is watchable throughout. The same goes for Margot Robbie and John David Washington. The three of them deliver throughout this movie.

The supporting players also make their mark. Probably the two best supporting performances belong to Rami Malek as Valerie’s manipulative brother Tom, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who other than Bale, delivers hands down the best performance in the movie, as Tom’s eccentric wife Libby.

It was fun to see Mike Myers back on screen again, playing a British intelligence officer named Paul Canterbury, in a role which would have been perfectly suitable for Michael York a few years back. Myers and Michael Shannon, who plays Canterbury’s American intelligence counterpart, share lots of scenes together and seem to be having a great time as the two men who steer Burt and his friends towards uncovering the conspiracy plot.

Chris Rock in limited screen time gets some genuine laugh out loud moments as Milton King, one of the other soldiers in Burt’s and Harold’s platoon. Timothy Olyphant is also memorable under heavy face-altering prosthetics as Taron Milfax, a villainous henchman and murderer. And Zoe Saldana is enjoyable as a beautiful coroner who has eyes for Burt.

By the time Rober De Niro shows up as the level-headed general who refutes the coup, the film has lost a lot of its energy and pizzaz. While it remains entertaining throughout, the first two thirds of AMSTERDAM are much more energetic than its third act, which slows down as all the answers are revealed.

And David O. Russell’s screenplay keeps things simple. When De Niro’s General Dillenbeck delivers his much-anticipated speech, the words he uses to explain the evil that these men plan to do sounds like he’s speaking to a room of first graders. I suppose this is better than an explanation that is unclear and cryptic, but things are explained in straightforward simplistic black and white terms, in language that definitely calls to mind current events and what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Overall, I enjoyed AMSTERDAM quite a bit, and I liked it better than Russell’s previous two movies, JOY and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). My two favorite Russell movies remain THE FIGHTER (2010) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), but AMSTERDAM is right up there with them.

The 1933 New York sets, costumes, and cinematography were so authentic, I half expected to see King Kong rampaging through the streets on his way to the Empire State Building.

AMSTERDAM covers more than just its murder/coup plot, as it touches upon love, relationships, race, and art. At the end of the movie when Valerie and Harold have to leave the country, because they know their mixed-race relationship will not be allowed in the United States, it’s a powerful point that not many movies have felt comfortable making, and when Burt vows to work towards changing things, so his friends can return and live in this country freely, it’s a bittersweet moment because while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

But the overall feel of this drama/comedy period piece is definitely on the lighter side, and the film provides plenty of humorous moments and laughter, most of it of the quirky variety, and it all works, even if the final third of the film slows down somewhat.

AMSTERDAM is well worth the visit.

I give it three stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SHADOWS: RALPH BELLAMY

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Ralph Bellamy, who during his long and prolific career often flirted with leading man roles but most of the time played supporting roles and developed into one of the most respected character actors of his time. Bellamy is known for so much more than his appearances in some horror movies, but for purposes of this column, we will focus on those horror movie roles, especially since one of those roles was a prominent one in one of the greatest horror movies of all time, Universal’s THE WOLF MAN (1941).

Bellamy was also known for his tireless advocacy for actors behind the scenes, as he helped create the Screen Actors Guild and served as President of Actors’ Equity from 1952-1964, leading the charge against McCarthyism and its baseless accusations against actors of the time.

Here now is a partial look at Bellamy’s career, in which he amassed 194 screen credits, with special emphasis on his horror movie roles:

THE SECRET 6 (1931) – Johnny Franks – Bellamy’s first screen credit, in a gangster movie which also featured Clark Gable in the cast.

THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) – Daniel Leeson- comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn in which Bellamy eventually loses Dunn to Grant. Bellamy would become known for playing roles in which his character would not end up with the girl.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940).

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) – Bruce Baldwin – one of my favorite Ralph Bellamy roles as the honest but dull Bruce Baldwin who once again loses out to Cary Grant for the affections of the leading lady.

ELLERY QUEEN, MASTER DETECTIVE (1940) – Ellery Queen – first in a series of movies in which Bellamy played famed detective Ellery Queen.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Colonel Montford – if you’re a horror fan, this is where you know Ralph Bellamy from, and for me, this is my favorite Bellamy role. As the village law enforcement officer, it’s up to Montford to solve the mystery of just what or who is killing the villagers. Further complicating matters is he is good friends with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who just happens to be the Wolf Man, the creature who is committing all the murders. And what makes THE WOLF MAN so great is this compelling storyline isn’t even the main one, but only one of the many compelling storylines in the film, which includes an amazing cast. In addition to Bellamy and Chaney, there’s Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Patric Knowles.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)- Erik Ernst- Bellamy teams once again with fellow WOLF MAN stars Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. in this fourth Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie, the first and only time Lon Chaney Jr. played the Monster. Bellamy again plays the town’s top law enforcement officer, this time involved with Dr. Frankenstein’s (Sir Cedricke Hardwicke) daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers). Lugosi of course plays one of his all-time best movie characters, Ygor, the second and last time he would play the character, having created the role in the previous Frankenstein movie, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). Bellamy gets to be the hero here as he leads the charge to rescue Elsa and destroy the Monster.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Dr. Sapirstein- it took nearly 30 years for Bellamy to appear in another horror movie, but his turn here as the sinister Dr. Sapirstein in Roman Polanski’s classic thriller is one of his best and most frightening performances.

SOMETHING EVIL (1972) – Harry Lincoln- TV movie about a haunted house starring Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin, directed by a young Steven Spielberg!

THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER (1974)- Adlai Stevenson- Bellamy won an Emmy for his portrayal of Adlai Stevenson in this TV movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, starring William Devane as JFK and Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy.

OH, GOD! (1977) – Sam Raven- supporting role in this very popular Carl Reiner comedy in its day starring George Burns as God who communicates to unsuspecting John Denver. Also features Teri Garr and Donald Pleasence in its cast.

THE WINDS OF WAR (1983) – Franklin Delano Roosevelt- won another Emmy for his portrayal of FDR in this TV miniseries, the second time he played Roosevelt in a movie, the first being in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1960).

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Randolph Duke- memorable pairing with Don Ameche in this funny John Landis comedy starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Denholm Elliott.

WAR AND REMEMBRANCE (1988-1989)- Franklin Delano Roosevelt- plays Roosevelt once again in this TV miniseries sequel.

PRETTY WOMAN (1990)- James Morse- Bellamy’s final film role in this insanely popular romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Bellamy passed away on November 29, 1991 due to a lung ailment. He was 87.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we looked at the career of Ralph Bellamy, known to horror fans for his work in THE WOLF MAN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and years later, in ROSEMARY’S BABY.

I hope you will join me again next time when we look at the career of another memorable character actor in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

OPERATION MINCEMEAT (2022) – World War II Period Piece Tells Fascinating Story of Deception

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT (2022) may sound like a horror movie about cannibals, but it’s not.

It’s a World War II period piece based on the true story of a top-secret espionage plot by British Intelligence which aimed at duping Hitler and the Nazis into believing the Allies were going to invade Greece rather than their intended target of Sicily.

Now available on Netflix, OPERATION MINCEMEAT tells the story of two intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) who face the arduous task of having to create a false narrative to make the Nazis believe something that they have no business believing, because conventional wisdom has it that the most strategic spot for the Allies to attack next is Sicily. They come up with the idea of having a corpse wash up on the shore of Spain where they believe the contents of the false plan which will be in the corpse’s possession will make its way to the Nazi leaders there who in turn will forward the information to Hitler.

Their superior officer Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) thinks the plan is absolutely ridiculous and obvious, and that the Nazis would never fall for it, but Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) believes it is so obvious that the Nazis wouldn’t think the British would try something so blatantly foolish, and hence would then suspect the information as being real, and so he greenlights the project.

Ewen and Charles face complications from the get-go. For starters, their search for a suitable corpse proves nearly impossible, to which Ewen quips that he can’t believe they are in the middle of a war and they can’t find corpse for their needs anywhere in the country! Their attempts to photograph the corpse prove fruitless, as no matter how hard they try, they can’t make him look alive, and so they decide to then search for a live person who resembles the dead man and take pictures of him instead.

They have to create an entire back story for this man to make everything as realistic as possible, including creating an entire love story complete with love letters, and to this end they receive help from a key member of their team, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). Jean’s involvement eventually complicates matters as she and the married Ewen begin to share a chemistry together, while the single Charles also has eyes for her. Further complicating matters is Admiral Godfrey suspects Ewen’s brother of being a communist spy for the Soviets and orders Charles to spy on Ewen. Through all this, they do eventually create an entire back story for their corpse and do get him to the shores of Spain where the information is then picked up by the local authorities. From there, the plans must get to the Nazis in the hope that Hitler will believe the ruse and send his troops to Greece rather than Sicily.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT tells a fascinating story that if it weren’t true would be difficult to believe. I mean, no spoilers since this is history, but the ploy worked, and as meticulously mapped out in this movie by screenwriter Michelle Ashford, it was an incredibly tall order to pull off. So many things had to go right, and they did. Of course, a lot of it was because of the careful and relentless planning by Ewen and Charles. They prepared for everything, including inserting an eyelash inside the closed letter, so that when eventually the materials were returned and the letter unopened, when they opened it they saw the eyelash was gone, to which Admiral Godfrey laments that he wasn’t going to send British soldiers to their deaths based on one missing eyelash! The detailed screenplay was based on a book by Ben Macintyre.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT reminded me somewhat of another recent World War II espionage movie, MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021). I actually enjoyed MUNICH somewhat more than OPERATION MINCEMEAT. As fascinating a story told in OPERATION MINCEMEAT, it often falls short in the emotion department. The film works more on an intellectual level. Also, while there are moments of dramatic tension, in terms of suspense, it’s a little more subdued than it could have been.

Director John Madden has made a handsome production that firmly fits the period, but in terms of driving the film forward to a riveting climax he tends to coast rather than speed.

Colin Firth is excellent as Ewen, and his personality kind of sets the tone for the entire movie, as he is dealing with all sorts of stress, both professional and personal, and he deals with it all subtly and politely.

Matthew Macfadyen is equally as strong as Charles, who is much more straightforward than Ewen and far less complicated. The two don’t always see eye to eye, but they put aside their differences and work well together.

Kelly Macdonald is very enjoyable as Jean, the widower who grows attached to Ewen even as she knows she shouldn’t.

Jason Isaacs is pompous and cranky as Admiral Godfrey. It’s another topnotch performance by Isaacs. And Simon Russell Beale is fun to watch as an irascible yet imaginative Winston Churchill. Isaacs and Beale also both co-starred in THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017), a film that gave both of them far meatier roles than here in OPERATION MINCEMEAT.

I also really enjoyed Penelope Wilton as Hester, Ewen’s exceedingly loyal secretary and valued member of the Mincemeat team. Johnny Flynn is also really good as a young cool and confident Ian Fleming who is also a member of the team. The film even provides some fun insights into the future James Bond author’s writing.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT is a polished World War II period piece drama that tells the unlikely yet true story of one of the greatest ruses pulled off during the war, a deception that fooled the Nazis into defending the wrong nation and enabled the British to successfully take over the strategic location at Sicily. While the movie sometimes lacks emotion and tension, it does feature topnotch performances and tells a fascinating story of a side of the war not always told, the intelligence side.

And in this case, intelligence means deception.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

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Recently in this column, we looked at THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944), which was the last of the serious Universal INVISIBLE MAN movies, before the invisible one went on to meet Abbott and Costello, in a film obviously played for laughs. I mentioned that the lead in that movie was Jon Hall, and that it was his second time playing an invisible man.

Hall first played the invisible fellow in INVISIBLE AGENT (1942), the subject of today’s IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, which makes Hall the only actor to play the Invisible Man as the lead role in more than one movie. Vincent Price played the Invisible Man twice as well, but one of those performances was a cameo in the final seconds of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Price also played the lead in the first INVISIBLE MAN sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940).

INVISIBLE AGENT never made the rounds on the Saturday afternoon horror movie docket when I was a kid, and so I never caught up with this one until as an adult I purchased it on DVD. It probably didn’t show up back in the day because it’s really not a horror movie. That’s right, INVISIBLE AGENT is a war movie, as the main character, Frank Griffin, who changes his name to Frank Raymond, is a descendant of the original Claude Rains’ character Jack Griffin in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). The film takes place in 1942, the year it was made, and Frank agrees to use the invisibility formula to turn himself into an invisible agent to help thwart the Nazis!

And since this isn’t a horror movie, even though the dangers of the invisibility formula are mentioned briefly in the film, main character Frank Raymond really doesn’t have to worry all that much about going insane like his infamous ancestor. That horrific plot point isn’t really on the menu here.

In INVISIBLE AGENT, Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) agrees to work with the United States government to turn himself invisible and take on the Nazis. His contact in Germany is the beautiful Maria Sorenson (Illona Massey). Together, they work to thwart the plans of Nazi Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedrick Hardwicke) and Japanese villain Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre). They succeed rather easily, because most of the bad guys in this one are portrayed as hapless buffoons.

Most of INVISIBLE AGENT is played for laughs, which actually works against this movie. It would have been a much more intriguing flick had the plot been taken a bit more seriously. It’s not a horror movie, and it’s not much of a wartime thriller, and that’s two strikes against it. It is, however, an amusing light “let’s beat up on the Nazis” movie which since it was released in the middle of World War II, most likely was a crowd pleaser.

The screenplay by Curt Siodmak, one of classic horror’s best writers, with screenplay credits that include THE WOLF MAN (1941), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), to name just a few, isn’t one of his best, but it does make for a lighthearted World War II adventure with decent characters and interesting dialogue.

Jon Hall fares better as an invisible man here in INVISIBLE AGENT than he would later in THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, as his character here is likable and heroic, and he possesses a spunky sense of humor. Illona Massey makes for a strong female heroine as Maria Sorenson. She would play another effective heroine the following year in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, playing Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein.

The two best performances in the movie however belong to Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre as the two villains. A huge part of this is that in this easygoing movie, both Hardwicke and Lorre play things straight and are really quite nefarious. Lorre delivers the better performance of the two, although it’s jarring and by today’s standards disturbing to watch him play a Japanese character. It wasn’t an issue back in 1942, as Lorre even made an entire film series as the Japanese detective Mr. Moto back in the 1930s.

On the other hand, J. Edward Bromberg’s Nazi Karl Heiser is entirely played for laughs. Bromberg would go on to appear in two other Universal horror movies, as vampire expert Professor Lazlo in SON OF DRACULA (1943), and as one of the Paris Opera owners in the Claude Rains remake of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943).

Edwin L. Marin directed INVISIBLE AGENT, and there are plenty of entertaining scenes, from the silly dinner sequence where an invisible Frank sabotages Nazi Karl Heiser’s plans for a romantic evening with Maria, to Frank’s inspired escape from Conrad Stauffer and his Nazi henchman. But the film never takes itself all that seriously, and at the end of the day, its lighthearted humor didn’t really work all that well for me.

The invisible special effects by John Fulton are still pretty impressive. In fact, Fulton was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects but lost out to the effects team on REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), which was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Sadly, none of the impressive Invisible Man effects in any of the Universal Invisible Man movies ever won an Oscar. Ironically, Fulton would go on to win two Academy Awards for special effects, for the Daniel Kaye musical comedy WONDER MAN (1945) and for DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).

INVISIBLE AGENT is an amusing movie if you are in the mood for a playful tale about an invisible man making fools out of Nazis. You could do a lot worse, to be sure.

But it’s not a horror movie, nor is it an overly exciting adventure, and so at the end of the day, INVISIBLE AGENT only worked for me as a minor diversion. The best part by far are the two villainous performances by Sir Cedrick Hardwicke and Peter Lorre.

Any other attributes are all rather… invisible.

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BLACK CRAB (2022) – War Action Thriller Exciting and Cinematic

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BLACK CRAB (2022), a new Netflix original movie which hails from Sweden, is a slick, stylized war action thriller about a secret mission in which a small group of soldiers must make their way behind enemy lines across a frozen body of salt water to get top secret materials to their base on the other side.

The story takes place in the near future, but its bleak scenes of war violence amid an unnamed European landscape and its story of the brutality of war, definitely benefits from the real-life current war in Ukraine which is playing out each night on news stations across the world. The film’s points, even though the story is set in the future, resonate that much louder in this current setting of an unprovoked brutal attack on a sovereign nation.

While the plot often borders on the ridiculous, it makes for grand cinema and some truly exciting and suspenseful film sequences,

The film opens with a woman Caroline Edh (Noomi Rapace) in a car with her daughter when the road is attacked by an unnamed military force. Vehicles are blown up, and soldiers on the ground abduct Edh’s daughter. The story then jumps ahead in time, and we see that Edh is now a rebel soldier in an unnamed country fighting the unnamed invading enemy.

Edh is selected for a top-secret mission. Her side is losing the war, and unless they can get some top-secret materials to their base on the other side of a body of salt water, they will ultimately lose the conflict. Fortunately, this body of water is now frozen. Unfortunately, it’s too thin for vehicles to drive over, and too thick for boats to get through. The solution? A group of soldiers will ice skate— yup, you heard that right, ice skate across the thin ice under the cover of darkness, braving both the elements and their enemies in helicopters who will be flying above trying to shoot them dead. Edh and her fellow soldiers have been chosen for this mission because of their ability to ice skate quickly.

Edh correctly calls this a suicide mission, but the superior officer takes her aside and tells her that they have found her missing daughter, and that she is at the base across the frozen water. If Edh gets there with the secret information, she will be reunited with her daughter, hence giving Edh more motivation than anyone else to make it across the ice.

And that’s the story told in BLACK CRAB. As I said, some of it is ridiculous. Ice skating across a frozen body of salt water? Yeah, it sounds like a suicide mission. More importantly, it sounds like a failed mission! But I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. I just wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t anything more than a plot contrivance to film some cool scenes.

And that by far is the best part of BLACK CRAB. Writer/director Adam Berg fills this one with lots of cool visuals and exciting action sequences. There’s one moment where Edh and her fellow soldiers suddenly find themselves skating over a graveyard of frozen human corpses just underneath the ice, either from a capsized lifeboat or some other brazen attack, that makes for a particularly creepy sequence.

The action scenes are topnotch. Helicopters zoom by trying to pick off the skaters, there are several hard-hitting explosive firefights, and more than one thrilling sequence involving hand grenades.

The screenplay by Berg and Pelle Radstrom, based on a novel by Jerker Virdborg, definitely sets the stage for lots of excitement, even if not all of it makes the most sense. The plot thickens and gets better when the skaters discover just what it is they are bringing to their base across the ice. The overall theme of the movie besides war is hell, is that you can’t trust anyone on either side. Indeed, the skaters do not trust each other at all, but as their situation grows more dire, and as the body count among them grows, they throw all that suspicion aside and trust each other in order to survive. This part of the story works well.

The skaters all have different personalities, yet we don’t really get to know any of them all that well, other than Edh.

I like Noomi Rapace a lot. She is intense here as Caroline Edh and very believable as the relentless soldier who will do anything to get across that ice to be reunited with her abducted daughter. I first saw Rapace in the original THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO (2009). She has also starred in PROMETHEUS (2012) and the underrated thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013). Her performance here in BLACK CRAB goes a long way towards making this movie a watchable thriller.

The rest of the cast is commendable. Jakob Oftebro who plays Nylund, one of the characters Edh trusts the least at first, until circumstances bring them together, does have a Brad Pitt-type vibe going on throughout this movie.

I really enjoyed BLACK CRAB. As I said, its wartime plot and images of bombed European cities benefits from the current war in Ukraine, as points the film makes resonate deeper than they might have otherwise. It comes off less as futuristic fiction and more like real life drama. It has the style and grittiness of an action thriller like ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), only it takes place in the near future rather than during the Cold War.

It also joins a recent set of movies with plots about traveling over ice. We just saw the historical adventure AGAINST THE ICE (2022) which told the true story of a treacherous expedition into Greenland. And last year Liam Neeson and some friends traversed THE ICE ROAD (2021) in northern Canada in tractor trailers as part of a rescue mission to free trapped miners. Of the three, I enjoyed BLACK CRAB the most.

And it features an effective electronic music score by Dead People. It’s the type of score that would have been right at home in a John Carpenter film of yesteryear.

As I said, the film is available on Netflix, in both its original Swedish language with English subtitles, or dubbed in English. I prefer the original Swedish language version with subtitles.

BLACK CRAB is an intense and surprisingly cinematic adventure that not only provides its audience with a hard-hitting thrill ride but also has a few things to say about the futility of war. In any age.

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MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK (2021) – Moving Drama Adds Fresh Perspective to Anne Frank’s Story

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MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK (2021), a film that hails from the Netherlands and is now available on Netflix, tells the story of the friendship between Anne Frank and her best friend Hannah Goslar and covers events from just before Anne and her family went into hiding inside the secret annex and afterwards, when Hannah and Anne were briefly reunited inside a concentration camp.

As such, the film makes for an enlightening companion piece to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, the world-renowned diary written by the middle school aged Anne Frank while she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis, which the only member of her family to survive the ordeal, her father, Otto Frank, decided to publish after the war.

Hannah Goslar is mentioned by Anne a bunch of times in her diary, but Otto Frank changed some of the names of the people they knew, and in early versions of the diary Hannah’s name was changed to Lies. In the most recent versions of the diary, Hannah’s real name has been restored.

MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK tells its story by switching back and forth between the time just before Anne and her family go into hiding, and later, when both she and Hannah are imprisoned in concentration camps, and it does so seamlessly.

The film opens in 1942 in Holland where best friends Anne Frank (Aiko Beemsterboer) and Hannah Goslar (Josephine Arendsen) enjoy their time together with tea parties, games of hide and seek, and talking about boys, while dealing with the Nazi occupation, which at this time in their lives seems to be not much more than an annoying nuisance. It then pivots to 1945 where Hannah is imprisoned with her very young sister inside a Nazi concentration camp. Her ill father is kept in a different part of the camp, and on occasion they are allowed to visit him. The living conditions are deplorable, food scarce, and disease rampant. Hannah discovers than Anne is imprisoned in another section of the camp, and the conditions there are even worse. They communicate on either side of a wall, and as Anne pleads for food, Hannah decides to risk her life to get food to her best friend.

The film pivots back and forth between these two time periods, inviting us to witness the friendship between Anne and Hannah, and later when the situations for the two girls grow dire, to understand how such a deep friendship impacted both their lives.

I enjoyed MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK very much. Director Ben Sombogaart, who spent a lot of time talking to the real life Hannah Goslar, who is still alive and, in her nineties, has made a sensitive and in spite of its subject matter heartwarming movie that celebrates the friendship between two girls which saw them through unspeakable times. And in Anne’s case, since she died in the concentration camp, was something she took with her to her death. The movie is an affirmation of the human spirit, that in spite of the Nazi atrocities, the spirit and friendship of these two girls would not quit, and the love they felt for each other outlasted the Nazi horrors.

The screenplay by Marian Batavier and Paul Ruven, based on the book Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend by Alison Leslie Gold, has been criticized by some for sometimes showing Anne in an unfavorable light, as she is depicted at times being bratty and also being very comfortable and open talking about sexuality, but if you’ve read Anne’s Diary, you know that this is how she was, and so the movie doesn’t really get into anything regarding Anne’s personality that isn’t already known from the diary. It does a fine job capturing the friendship between Anne and Hannah and does so in a tender, affectionate way.

Josephine Arendsen is outstanding as Hannah, in what is pretty much the lead role in the movie, since the film spends most of its time telling its story from Hannah’s perspective. Arendsen plays Hannah as being much less precocious and confident than Anne, but who nonetheless possesses tremendous courage in the face of adversity. Arendsen reminded me a bit of Anya Taylor-Joy at times.

Aiko Beemsterboer was also very good as Anne Frank, and her portrayal was consistent with how Anne talks about herself in her diary.

We live in a time when authoritarianism is creeping back into the world, and so the story of Anne Frank continues to be an important one to tell and remember, to fight back against the powers that be who believe in anything less than human rights for all.

MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK frames Anne’s story around her friendship with Hannah Goslar and tells it through Hannah’s eyes, adding a fresh perspective to the narrative of a young girl who only wanted to see the world, but whose life was cut short by the Nazis.

Her words live on to inspire those to remember her plight and to fight on against the powers of fascism wherever they may be.

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MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021) – World War II Espionage Tale is Superior Piece of Historical Fiction

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Neville Chamberlain is finally being shown some love.

Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister from 1937-1940, is generally viewed in history as the guy who for reasons of keeping the peace sat back and let Adolf Hitler gear up for war without doing anything to stop him, and it wasn’t until Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 that the United Kingdom took back its fighting spirit and met the Nazis head on.

But MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021), a new movie which premiered on Netflix last month, tells a different side of Chamberlain’s story, showing how his unrelenting determination to avoid war actually bought time for the United Kingdom to prepare for war with Hitler.

Now, Chamberlain’s story isn’t the main one told in MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR, but it’s the most fascinating one.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is actually the story of two friends, Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewohner), who met at Oxford and became best friends until they had a falling out over Adolf Hitler and the new Nazi regime. Paul believes Hitler is good for Germany and is making Germans feel great about their country again, but Hugh sees him as a racist monster.

Six years later, in 1938, Hugh finds himself working as a civil servant at the office of the Prime Minister, where he reads, edits speeches, and translates for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons). Tensions are high as Hitler plans to invade Czechoslovakia, and the invasion seems imminent, but Chamberlain refuses to give up on diplomacy, citing his memories of the brutality of the previous war, and predicting that any future war would be far worse. Unable to get a response from Hitler, Chamberlain turns to Hitler’s trusted friend Mussolini, hoping that the Italian leader would get Hitler to the negotiating table. On the eve of the invasion, Hitler backs down and agrees to meet with Chamberlain for peace talks.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Paul has had a change of heart about Hitler, after the Nazis brutalize his Jewish girlfriend. His position keeps him in Hitler’s inner circle, and as such, he is secretly working with a small group that wants to remove the Fuhrer from power. A top-secret document makes its way into his possession, which outlines Hitler’s true plans for Europe in specific detail, proving that Hitler isn’t interested in peace but in expanding the German empire and plans to use force to do it. Paul realizes that this peace meeting with Chamberlain is exactly what Hitler wants, as it will buy him time to build up for future invasions.

MI6 receives word that Paul has this document and that he wants to turn it over to Hugh so that Hugh can get it to Chamberlain, and they pretty much order Hugh to meet with Paul and get the document without telling any of his superiors, which sets up the second half of the movie, as Hugh and Paul navigate in the shadows around the Nazis, while Chamberlain and Hitler meet to sign a peace accord to prevent the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a fascinating movie that I really enjoyed, a piece of historical fiction that makes for compelling viewing and gives a nuanced interpretation of Neville Chamberlain while doing it.

Both Hugh and Paul were not real people, but they are loosely based on British scholar A. L. Rowse, and German diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz, who were friends at Oxford. The screenplay by Ben Power, based on the novel Munich by Robert Harris, is entertaining and intriguing throughout. I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but the story it tells in this movie is a good one.

The best part is its depiction of Neville Chamberlain, a man who is shown here with an unrelenting passion for keeping the peace. It’s a noble attribute and is one that today a person would be hard-pressed to argue against.

It also helps that Jeremy Irons is playing Neville Chamberlain. As one might expect, Irons delivers the best performance in the movie. He captures the elderly Chamberlain’s devotion to peace, and the physical toll it takes on him, as he has to go toe to toe with Hitler, but it’s a task that in spite of his age he is up for, and Irons makes Chamberlain a leader that people can rally around, which is not the way history has so far remembered Chamberlain, who is often viewed as a weak Prime Minister. And it was much more satisfying to watch Irons play Chamberlain here than his recent portrayal of Alfred in the Ben Affleck BATMAN movies.

Both George Mackay as Hugh and Jannis Niewohner as Paul are also excellent. Mackay perfectly captures the tensions that Hugh feels, and he looks like he should be chain smoking throughout the movie. He makes Hugh so stressed out the intensity becomes almost palpable. Previously we saw MacKay playing a character fighting in World War I, as he played a soldier in 1917 (2019).

Niewohner, who hails from Germany, plays Paul as an intense, volatile character whose passion for Germany is so laser-focused that it enables him to see through Hitler and view him as someone whose interests are not aligned with what is best for the country.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR was directed by Christian Schwochow, who does a masterful job. The film is elegant to look at, with its depiction of 1938 Munich, as the sets, costumes, and attention to detail are superb. The story is riveting, and this is an historical drama that is much more of a suspense vehicle than a straight narrative. It’s edge of your seat material.

Not everything works about the film. While there are female characters in the movie, none of them take center stage. I realize the plot is really about Hugh and Paul, and Neville Chamberlain, but the supporting female characters in the movie are not fleshed out at all.

There’s also a key scene that I didn’t buy, and it comes when Paul finds himself alone in a room with Hitler, and he has a gun, and he intends to assassinate the Fuhrer, but he doesn’t. The reason he gives later didn’t fly, not after we perceived him as the explosive, driven young man who not only wanted to save Germany at all costs, but who held Hitler personally responsible for the brutalization of his girlfriend. The scene just didn’t work for me. Everything we learned about Paul told us he would have pulled that trigger.

But overall, I really enjoyed MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR. It’s on par with DARKEST HOUR (2017), the film which won Gary Oldman an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, and in terms of spy intrigue, it’s nearly as tense as Steven Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and the recent THE COURIER (2020) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, even though both these films were spy stories about the Cold War and not World War II.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a superior piece of historical fiction, an edge of your seat espionage tale, that touts the value of diplomacy over war, and poses the intriguing question of who benefitted more from the time bought by the peace agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. The film argues it was Chamberlain, that his intervention helped give nations time to be ready for when Hitler would ultimately mobilize his war machine a year later. And seeing that the Nazis lost the war, that argument seems sound.

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OUTSIDE THE WIRE (2021) – Netflix Action Movie Mixed Bag

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Well, here we are in 2021, the pandemic still with us, movie theaters still unsafe to visit, and for those of us who love movies, we’re reduced to watching them from home. Now, I’m sure some folks have no problem with this. I for one miss the movie theater experience, and I sincerely hope they survive the pandemic and reopen when it is safe. I will definitely be back inside those darkened walls.

In the meantime, I continue to review movies from home, available on streaming services. And as much as I miss the movie theaters, I’m just grateful that new movies continue to be released.

Up today, it’s an action/science fiction flick from Netflix, OUTSIDE THE WIRE (2021), starring Anthony Mackie, and I was excited to watch it because it would be the first film released in 2021 that I would be reviewing, and it felt like an unofficial reminder that yes, even in this pandemic, the movies are still coming. The well is not dry.

So, I was excited.

Sadly, that’s about as far as my excitement went. Yup, OUTSIDE THE WIRE isn’t exactly the most exhilarating actioner going. It’s not bad, but it could have been so much better. The biggest culprit? The script, which isn’t all that sharp. The action scenes run hot and cold as well.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE takes place in the near future, in 2036, and of course, the world is still at war. A young hot shot drone operator Harp (Damson Idris) ignores a direct order and sends a missile into a war zone, killing two of his own soldiers in the process. The way Harp rationalized his decision, he may have killed two soldiers, but he saved the rest of the platoon who would have all died had he not fired the missile.

But he ignored a direct order, and so there are consequences. For some reason, rather than being tossed out of the military, Harp is sent into a war zone in Eastern Europe, the thinking being he needs to gain experience in live combat in order to fully understand being a drone pilot. On his very first day, Harp is assigned to a special commander named Leo (Anthony Mackie) who Harp immediately learns isn’t human. He’s an advanced artificial intelligence prototype, and he tells Harp that he handpicked him for this mission, which will take them “outside the wire,” outside the protection of their troops and into hostile territory.

Their mission, as Leo explains it, is to locate a rogue terrorist who is planning to steal nuclear warheads and use them against the world. Hmm. Where have I heard this plot point before? Try a billion other movies! And so, this is what the rest of the movie is about, with various plot twists and turns, none of them all that interesting.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE is an average action movie, pure and simple. It trends below average for most of the film, but there were certain parts I liked that kept it watchable.

For starters, I enjoyed the two leads a lot. Damson Idris is excellent as Harp, and he channels a lot of a young Denzel Washington in the role. He has an edge, and you feel he has a chip on his shoulder throughout, and with a better script, the role could have been something special, which ultimately, it is not. But Idris is very good.

Anthony Mackie, known mostly these days to Marvel superhero fans as Sam Wilson/The Falcon in the AVENGERS movies and CAPTAIN AMERICA films, plays Leo, the advanced military robot who looks and acts exactly like a human. Mackie enjoys many fine moments and gets the best lines in the movie, but ultimately, the character just isn’t all that interesting, and the big reveals surrounding the character towards the film’s conclusion only made things worse. Where’s Arnold Schwarzenegger when you need him? But Mackie is a fine actor who has also had notable roles in films like THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and DETROIT (2017).

Emily Beecham plays Sofiya, one of Leo’s contacts in the war zone. She’s one of the more interesting characters in the movie.

And Michael Kelly enjoys frequent scene stealing moments as Eckhart, the no-nonsense takes-no-crap military officer. My favorite Kelly role remains his work on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-2018) where he played Doug Stamper, the right hand man to the corrupt Francis Underwood.

As an action movie, OUTSIDE THE WIRE should be driven by its action scenes, which here, unfortunately, run hot and cold. The close-up hand to hand combat scenes are sufficiently intense and are the better action scenes in the movie, but the broader battle scenes, the ones involving big guns and missiles and drones and robots just don’t look all that realistic. There’s a very cartoonish look to them, very CGI, and I wasn’t all that impressed. The most memorable action sequence may have been the one to open the movie, where Harp shoots the fateful missile. That’s not a good sign when the best action sequence is the first one.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE was directed by Mikhael Hafstrom who at the very least keeps the pace of this one moving. Like I said, some of the action scenes work, others don’t. Hafstrom also doesn’t take complete advantage of the Eastern European setting either. The film never establishes a clear sense of place.

Hafstrom also directed ESCAPE PLAN (2013), an action film which paired Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a film I liked better than OUTSIDE THE WIRE.

The weakest part of OUTSIDE THE WIRE by far is its script by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe. For starters, for a futuristic action thriller, the plot is a snooze, mostly because it offers little that is new. The race to get to a nuclear bomb before the bad guy? Yawn. For some reason, the whole story felt like an episode of the TV show THE BLACKLIST (2013- present) , and I kept expecting to see James Spader show up as Raymond Reddington, cooly offering a much better plot twist than the one offered in this movie.

It does offer some good banter between Harp and Leo, and one of the better conversations is when Leo explains why the military built their superstar robot to resemble a black man. So, there are moments where the script is better, but for the most part, expecially in terms of its general plot, it’s subpar.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE is a classic “mixed bag” of a movie. You’ve got a couple of strong lead performances, paired with some notable supporting performances, some good action scenes, some not so good ones, and a story that is when you come right down to it, a yawnfest. Not that saving the world from nuclear disaster isn’t a compelling story. It’s just that it’s been told so many times, and this film doesn’t really offer anything new in the storytelling department.

OUTSIDE THE WIRE could definitely have benefitted from some outside the box thinking.

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